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The dangerous classroom

In 1959, fifty-one years ago this month, I started kindergarten. I still remember my teacher telling me I needed to color within the lines like a train needed to stay on the tracks. I responded by pointing out to her that trains often derailed. I remember not having an idea for a subject when we finger-painted, so I made a series of crosshatched lines in the lower left corner of the paper and proclaimed that I had painted a pile of sticks. Red sticks. I remember not knowing how to skip and being ridiculed for it, and hearing our nearly fossilized teacher mispronounce my name in more ways than a rookie translator at the United Nations, and being the only student whose bean did not sprout from a paper cup full of dirt because I had planted it too deep.

And I still remember some of the songs we learned. I was thinking about one of them today and suddenly realized that beneath its harmless-sounding lyrics lurked a subversive message that somehow had slipped past Sen. McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee earlier in the 1950s. I hope the song has since been banned from our nation’s classrooms, but in the public interest and the interest of history, education, sociology, economics and political science, I think it’s necessary to examine this song, breaking it down line by line to fully explicate its anti-American agenda.

First, the lyrics in their entirety:

Well, I went down to the river and I couldn’t get across,
So I traded five dollars for an old gray horse,
But the horse wouldn’t go, so I traded for a hoe,
But the hoe wouldn’t dig, so I traded for a pig,
But the pig wouldn’t holler, so I traded for a dollar,
But the dollar wouldn’t cash, so I threw it in the grass!

An innocent song for children? Think again.

Consider the first line: “Well, I went down to the river and I couldn’t get across.” It’s quite likely this is the first time students of my generation were exposed to a critique of American infrastructure, and rather than hearing a celebration of America’s development of canals, railroads and a modern superhighway system, we instead heard criticism: that the person in the song “couldn’t get across” the river, obviously for the lack of a bridge. Think about the implications: An uncaring government was failing to meet its citizens’ transportation needs, probably due to the ineptitude of transportation officials. Immediately, the young children singing this song begin to doubt not only the adequacy of America’s system of bridges, but also the motives and competencies of government officials.

So I traded five dollars for an old gray horse. Here, and in the fourth line involving a pig, the student is indoctrinated with disillusionment with commodities trading—specifically, pig and horse futures. In a nation with the world’s greatest economy, schoolchildren were being forced to sing about the inadequacies of trading, about how the free exchange of goods for services resulted in the shameless exploitation of animals as well as an inadequate return on the exchange. But there is a deeper message: The minimum wage in 1960 was only a dollar an hour (you can look it up). So how was a kindergarten child expected to get five dollars in 1960? Certainly not by legal means.

But the horse wouldn’t go, so I traded for a hoe. This is yet another example of the song portraying the American economic system in the least-flattering light. Here, the person trading the horse is swindled due to a lack of market regulations. Shouldn’t such foolish trading be banned? Of what possible use would a hoe be at a riverside? No one with an IQ greater than that of the aforementioned horse would ever entertain the idea that the hoe could be used to tunnel under the river or to dam it up, stopping its flow to allow a crossing—an engineering effort that would be both futile and in violation of state and federal safety and environmental protection standards. Clearly, state or federal standards to protect such gullible traders are in order. What is especially chilling here is that if this song still is being sung today, no doubt that line has been changed to “But the horse wouldn’t go, so I traded for a ho,” and now we are into a broad new range of degradations involving the exploitation of women, unmarried sex, sexually transmitted diseases, the breakdown of family values and perhaps related issues like crime and drug use.

But the ho—sorry, hoe—wouldn’t dig, so I traded for a pig. We’ve already talked about pig futures. Let’s move on:

But the pig wouldn’t holler, so I traded for a dollar. Just when you thought the song couldn’t get any more vile, it veers into the darkness of animal abuse. After all, how else could someone get a pig to “holler” on cue? And when you get right down to it, the abuse is gratuitous because to my knowledge a hollering pig is of no transportation significance. I mean, does a hollering pig cause traffic to stop, or go, or turn, or back up—or cross a river where there is no bridge? No. Someone is tormenting the pig just for sick laughs.

But the dollar wouldn’t cash, so I threw it in the grass. Finally, we see the end of string of bad investments enabled by a government that sits idly back and fails to regulate such speculative ventures. Where is the protection for the consumer, who, remember, merely wanted to cross the river? Now, she or he is out more than a half-day’s wages and still has not crossed. And, in an especially galling conclusion, the person in the song is left with a counterfeit dollar, leading the young singers to distrust our nation’s currency and, by extension, the legitimacy of its entire economy.

Is it any wonder that my generation, having been exposed daily to this bleak vision of an uncaring government and a predatory economic system, grew up to burn draft cards, occupy government buildings with sit-ins, protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, oppose the Vietnam War, and tune in, turn on and drop out?

So, to the many parents who are reading this, I ask: Just how safe are the kindergartens that your children are attending? Perhaps a classroom visit during sing-along time is in order.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 25th, 2009 09:33 am (UTC)
Best post of the year

Sep. 25th, 2009 10:46 am (UTC)
Thanks much, Jeff. You catching any waves these days?
Sep. 25th, 2009 10:50 am (UTC)
I will be next week, but just am a tourist these days.

Sep. 25th, 2009 12:07 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I'll have to re-examine my childhood -- maybe I was also exposed to these dangerous songs. :-)
Sep. 25th, 2009 12:46 pm (UTC)
They also used to make us sing hymns and old Negro spirituals, one of which was lamenting the death of "massa." Egads.
Sep. 26th, 2009 01:35 am (UTC)
I KNOW! Why was that an option, d'you think? And we sang all kinds of God songs in public school, too. Of course, nearly anything was better than "Driftin' along with the tumblin' tumbleweeds. Seeeeeeeee them tumblin' down..."

Or how about this?
Betty Botter bought some butter,
"But," she said, "this butter's bitter.
If I bake this bitter butter,
It will make my batter bitter.
But a bit of better butter -
That would make my batter better."

Good grief, why was THAT a song?
Sep. 26th, 2009 01:44 am (UTC)
That's not a song, it's a roadside sobriety test.
Sep. 25th, 2009 12:14 pm (UTC)
I never learned that song, but for years I have been on pins and needles, hoping to learn unequivocally whether the hokey pokey is, indeed, what it's all about.

Surly youth #1 went to Catholic school for grades K-4. He was chastised mightily for "ruining the entire class project" because he chose to place his flying witch on paper going the long way instead of the tall way. I got yelled at, too. Apparently exhibiting individuality was more than a venial sin.

And I've got to go look through his papers - he just asked me if I remembered when they had to draw a picture of what they thought Heaven looked like. He drew a cloud with a water fountain, and a hot dog stand with big things of ketchup and mustard. His explanation was that the water fountain had water that was really, really, cold, and the mustard and ketchup never ran out. I got called in for that one, too. *sigh*
Sep. 25th, 2009 12:47 pm (UTC)
What's heaven without cold water, unending hot dogs and perpetual condiments?
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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